Wau — South Sudan's security apparatus in its border state of Western Bahr el Ghazal have released two journalists after questioning them for failing to cover President Salva Kiir's visit to Wau, its administrative capital in December, authorities and journalists said on Monday.
"There are no journalists I know being held in the state. The people you people are talking about in the media are not journalists. They are senior administrators who were not even arrested. They were called to answer some questions for failing to cover [the] visit of the president but they have been released already", state minister of information, Derik Alfred Uya said on Sunday.
Uya said the government had received complaints from citizens protesting about the lack coverage of the president's visit to the state because they wanted to hear the message of Kiir's visit, through state radio and television in Wau.
Senior officials from South Sudan's Western Bahr el Ghazal on Sunday denied that the state's administration had done little to inform local people about the benefits attached to the cabinet's decision to relocate the headquarters of Wau County.
John Peter Miskin resigned as the Commissioner of Wau County over the announcement in October and in December protests against the move were dealt with violently by police killing a number of people. At least 20 protestors were killed in demonstrations on 8, 9 and 18 December, according to government figures with other sources, including the former commissioner putting the figure much higher.
Further violence in Farajallah village, located in the Bagari district, 48 miles from Wau town, claimed the lives of 26 innocent people, all members of Dinka ethnic group from the three different states of the greater Bahr el Ghazal region. Bagari is the proposed new location of Wau County's administrative headquarters
On 24 December, South Sudan's President and the Governor's of Warrap, Lakes and Northern Bahr el Ghazal all visited Wau to try and calm tensions and back the decision to relocate the headquarters. Kiir's speech on Christmas Eve, surprised some as he not only backed the Wau County transfer but also expressed his support for the governor despite the violent response of the state's police to the protests in Wau town.
"Everybody was eagerly waiting that day, especially those who did not go to the stadium. They wanted to hear from the president directly [the] message of his visit to Wau but they were disappointed when they missed it and started calling to complain. Some people contacted us; others came personally to our offices. They wanted to know why such important visit was not covered. As citizens, this is their right and so decided to find out what caused the failure", Uya explained.
He charged that it was the duty of the radio and station managers to assign reporters to cover and ensure they report back after covering event and/or report to the relevant offices what was being required to do the work in advance.
"They knew [the] president was coming. They were informed. [A] series of meetings were held to prepare for [the] reception of the president. They know it. What they are saying is not correct that they experienced technical issues. It is their duty to have sought how to address these technical issues they are talking about now before the president came", he said.
He denied reports that the authorities arrested journalists as an attempt to put off efforts on reporting about recent unrest in the state. The questioning of the journalists was completely administrative affair without connection to the protests or response of the police that saw 20 people killed in December, the minister said.
International press freedom watch dog - the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) - said in a statement on Friday that the arrests were probably a campaign to stop the media from investigating the recent violence.
Authorities have been concerned by a video passed on to Al Jazeera television that appeared to show the police firing on unarmed protestors on 9 December in Wau town, local journalists told CPJ.
Security agents have attempted to pressure reporters in Wau to find out who had provided the footage to the international media, according to CPJ.
Louis Pasquale, Director General with the state run radio and a colleague, Ashab Khamis, Director of television said they were on Wednesday called for questioning by members of criminal investigation department for failing to cover visit of the president and their roles in the protest before they were let go.
Three other journalists were also held but released the same day. However, Pasquale and Khamis were asked to return the following day for additional interrogation.
Sudan Tribune was not able to physically verify reports of the release by visiting the them in Wau. However, their colleagues have confirmed they have been released without giving additional information or elaborating on whether they will be able to return to resume their duties.
"They have been released. They were actually not put into the cell. They were called and held for hours not knowing why they were there. For about two hours, they were not being talked to in the first day, just left to hang around. They were in complete bewilderment until someone came and started asking why they did not deploy reporters to cover the visit of the president" a source close to both the detained state-media personnel told Sudan Tribune on Monday.
The man interviewing them asked whether they knew it was their duty to assign reporters to cover Kiir's visit, the source, who is also a state-journalist, said. The interrogators also asked both men in their roles in December's protests, the journalist told Sudan Tribune.
The anonymous state-reporter said that he accompanied Pasquale and Khamis when they were called for questioning but was not arrested himself because he was not in the Wau during the protests and the President's visit.
Although calm has returned to the town and people have started going about their normal business with market opening as early as around 7am until 11 pm each day, intellectuals suspected to have participated in instigation of the violent still live in fear. Some of them have been arrested while others have fled the town.
A local administrative officer said some people had hoped the president would remove Governor Rizik Zachariah Hassan from his post when they heard he was coming to Wau, but were later shocked to hear his endorsement of Hassan and the cabinet's decision to transfer the headquarters of Wau County to Bagari.
"For us who are not politicians, we just keep away from them. I was approached several times by some politicians and the youth to be part of their camp but I told them no, because my position as civil servant does not allow participation in politics. So they took it that I was against community and started talking ill about me", the administrative officer said.
The President's speech on 24 December had empowered the state government, deterring some chiefs from coming out and declaring support for the protestors.
"There were people expecting the president was coming to announce removal of governor Rizik but they were shocked when the president gave his backing to the cabinet decision. There are actually feelings now that [the] president had given governor green light to hunt people suspected to have participated in instigation of violent and killing of in Farajalah", he said.